Editorial

Market headwinds spur further solar technology innovation in China

Customised solar technology solutions are being developed based on needs of different clients across a wide range of locations, climates, surface conditions, price levels and performance expectations.

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Although China is still the world’s largest solar market, market headwinds have caused demand to scale back since last year. The reduction in solar feed-in tariffs announced in 2018 was a key turning point for the domestic market. In 2019, US-led trade measures against Chinese solar product imports have also created uncertainty for the export market.

Despite the challenging market outlook, there was still impressive innovation on display at the SNEC solar conference in Shanghai in June. SNEC is China’s largest solar PV expo, where leading solar module manufacturers showcase new products and advanced technologies. Recent market trends have intensified competition between manufacturers as they grapple to maintain or increase share in the shrinking market, supporting rapid innovation.

Conversion efficiency is at the core of solar module performance, as it relates to power output and economic returns of solar projects. New high-efficiency module types such as half-cut, shingles and bifacial modules have been popping up over the past few years.

Dr Xiaojing Sun, senior solar supply chain analyst with Wood Mackenzie, said: “The beauty of the new module technologies is that they can be used together to improve efficiency. Bifacial technology can be combined with half-cut cells or shingles to harness power output gains from both techniques.”

Solar modules with a power rating of more than 300 Watts (W) are now easily achievable, and 400-W panels are becoming mainstream as China’s top 10 module players have all introduced new products to the industry. The module prototype with the largest power rating displayed at the show was a 500-W module by Seraphim, a Chinese supplier, using HJT cells and shingle plus bifacial module design.

“With multiple module types to select from, solar systems in the future will be able to offer customised solutions depending on locations, climates, surface conditions, price tolerance and performance expectations,” added Dr Sun.

At this year’s SNEC, bifacial modules were a staple at all major vendors’ booths. Manufacturers claim bifacial modules gain another 5% to 30% of electricity output depending on the site conditions in which they are installed. However, Dr Sun is more sceptical. “System design is equally important as site condition and, arguably, more complex to evaluate. System factors outside of modules, like the height and angle of trackers, directly affect the amount of shading created on the surface, and in turn, impact the backside gain,” said Dr Sun.

For now, with inadequate real-world data from practical use of bifacial modules, the jury is still out on how exactly site condition and system design could affect module performance, and how this new technique could impact material and labour costs. That said, these questions will be answered as the use of bifacial modules are rapidly scaled in the future.

Speaking of market expansion, Chinese module manufacturers also have their eyes on international markets due to attractive policy incentives. “The US market is expected to be hot until the ITC (investment tax credit) stepdown is completed by 2022. Some Chinese players are planning to set up factories in Southeast Asia for multi-GW-level capacity to seize the opportunity,” explained Dr Sun. In addition, bifacial modules have just won exemption from Section 201 tariffs, which could accelerate mass production and sales to the US.  

“Many solar markets are driven by policies at the national and state or provincial level. Companies are trying to understand them in detail. Moreover, on a tactical level, global-minded companies are looking for local partners and channels during their market entrance,” added Dr Sun.

The report A Dynamic Time for Global Solar Industry: Insights from 2019 SNEC is part of our Global Solar Markets Service.